Conflict in the South China Sea

July 14, 2016

Conflict in the South China Sea

Contingency Planning Memorandum Update

Author: Bonnie S. Glaser, Senior Advisor for Asia, Center for Strategic and International Studies

In April 2015, the author wrote an update to this memo to reflect recent developments in the South China SeaRead:

Update :

Conflict in the South China Sea - bonnie-s-glaser-conflict-in-the-south-china-sea

Publisher Council on Foreign Relations Press Release Date April 2015

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea continue to be a source of tension and potential conflict between China and other countries in the region. Though the United States takes no position on sovereignty claims in the South China Sea—including those of its ally, the Philippines—it is deeply interested in maintaining maritime security, upholding freedom of navigation, and ensuring that disputes are settled peacefully. For these reasons, a 2012 Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Contingency Planning Memorandum, “Armed Clash in the South China Sea,” argued that the United States should help lower the risk of conflict in the region, including the potential for dangerous military incidents involving U.S. and Chinese military forces.

New Concerns

Beijing’s intention to exert greater control over the South China Sea appears undiminished. In 2012, China forcibly seized control of the previously unoccupied Scarborough Reef during a standoff with Philippine maritime vessels, despite agreeing to a mutual withdrawal brokered by Washington. China has seemingly been emboldened by this easy, cost-free conquest: it has since begun construction of artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago that will enable it to extend the range of the Chinese navy, air force, coast guard, and fishing fleets in just a few years. Once sufficient capabilities are in place for round-the-clock maritime and air presence over the South China Sea, Beijing is likely to declare an air defense identification zone (ADIZ), similar to the ADIZ it declared over the East China Sea in November 2013. The scale and pace of China’s dredging activity has alarmed rival claimants Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.

The dispute between China and the Philippines over the Second Thomas Shoal deserves immediate attention. Since 1999, a small contingent of Philippine marines has been deployed on a vessel that Manila beached on the submerged reef. In 2014, Chinese coast guard ships attempted unsuccessfully to block delivery of food, water, and fresh troops to the military outpost. The condition of the beached ship is rapidly deteriorating and it is expected to slide into the sea in a matter of months unless it is reinforced. This situation could lead to another confrontation between Chinese and Philippine forces should Beijing decide to seize the shoal. The U.S.-Philippines mutual defense treaty could be invoked if, for example, a Philippine naval or coast guard vessel is attacked, a Philippine military aircraft is shot down, or members of the Philippine armed forces are injured.

A military clash between China and Vietnam is also a concern. In May 2014, China deployed a deep-sea oil rig in Vietnam’s two hundred–nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), leading to a seventy-three-day crisis in which Chinese and Vietnamese ships rammed each other repeatedly before the rig was withdrawn. Although Vietnam’s military capabilities are dwarfed by China’s, Hanoi is nevertheless determined to defend its maritime rights. Worries persist in Hanoi that Beijing could deploy the oil rig to contested waters again, risking military confrontation. Similar clashes could take place in the nine oil blocks along the coast of Vietnam, for which China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) invited foreign companies in 2012 to seek oil exploration bids, or near the Vietnamese-occupied Vanguard Bank.

In addition, the risk of a dangerous incident involving U.S. and Chinese forces within China’s EEZ remains a concern given the possibility of military escalation. Following several dangerous near-misses—notably in December 2013 involving a Chinese amphibious dock ship and a U.S. guided-missile cruiser and in August 2014 involving a Chinese fighter aircraft and a U.S. surveillance plane—the U.S. and Chinese militaries struck a groundbreaking deal on rules of behavior for safe military encounters between surface naval ships at sea. Such confidence-building measures may help reduce the potential for accidents in the future. However, individual commanders may still display aggressive behavior that could have dire consequences.

Policy Implications

U.S. interests in the South China Sea include freedom of navigation, unimpeded passage for commercial shipping, and peaceful resolution of territorial disputes according to international law. Failure to respond to Chinese coercion or use of force could damage U.S. credibility, not only in Southeast Asia, but also in Japan, where anxiety about intensified activity by Chinese military and paramilitary forces is growing. Conflict in the South China Sea would put at risk the more than $5 trillion in trade that passes through those strategic waters annually. Also at stake is the U.S. relationship with China, including Washington’s efforts to gain greater cooperation from Beijing on global issues such as combating terrorism, dealing with epidemics, confronting climate change, securing a deal on Iran’s nuclear program, and persuading North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons.


Although China may have moderated some of its intimidation tactics for now, it continues to seek greater control over the sea and airspace in the South China Sea. Moreover, various attempts to persuade China, along with the other claimants, to freeze destabilizing behavior such as land reclamation have not succeeded. Beijing continues to drag its feet on negotiating a binding code of conduct (CoC) with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and has rejected Manila’s attempt to resolve its territorial dispute through arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Halting Chinese land reclamation activities may not be possible, but the United States can press China to be transparent about its intentions and urge other nations to do the same. While remaining neutral on sovereignty disputes, the United States should encourage all parties to pursue their claims peacefully and in accordance with international law. The United States should also press China to accept constraints on its behavior in a CoC and dissuade China from taking actions that increase the risk of conflict. Several of the recommendations in CFR’s 2012 analysis of potential conflict in the South China Sea remain to be implemented; in particular, the United States should ratify UNCLOS. In addition, the United States should take the following steps:

  •  In the absence of progress between China and ASEAN on a binding CoC to avert crises in the South China Sea, the United States should encourage ASEAN to develop its own draft CoC containing risk-reduction measures and a dispute-resolution mechanism. The United States should then work with ASEAN to convince Beijing to sign and implement it.
  • The United States should continue to help the Philippines and Vietnam enhance their maritime policing and security capabilities, for example through better surveillance systems, so they can deter and respond to China entering the water and airspace in their EEZs with impunity. Similar assistance should be extended to Malaysia if requested.
  • The United States should be prepared to respond to future Chinese coercive acts including using U.S. naval forces to deter China’s continuing use of “white hulled” paramilitary vessels. Other responses, such as imposing economic sanctions on Chinese energy companies should they drill in contested waters, are also conceivable but should not be specified in advance.
  • The United States should state clearly and publicly that a declaration of an ADIZ by Beijing over the South China Sea would be destabilizing and would not be recognized by Washington.
  • To further reduce the risk of an accident between U.S. and Chinese forces, the two militaries should implement their joint commitment to conclude an agreement on air-to-air encounters by the end of the year.




5 thoughts on “Conflict in the South China Sea

  1. To set the facts and records straight, put the matters right:

    The Chinese government has issued a white paper on the arbitration ruling. It contains more than 20,000 Chinese characters and says the Philippines’ territorial claim over part of the Nansha Islands, is groundless from the perspective of either history or international law.

    Full Text: Chinese version;English version;French version

    BEIJING, July 13, 2016 (Xinhua) — Photo taken on July 13, 2016 shows the white paper titled “China Adheres to the Position of Settling Through Negotiation the Relevant Disputes Between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea” issued by Chinese government in Beijing, capital of China. “The Philippines’ territorial claim over part of Nansha Qundao is groundless from the perspectives of either history or international law,” said the document issued by the State Council Information Office on Wednesday.

  2. The US reconnaissance planes and naval ships had constantly,if not purposely, on numerous occasions,engaged themselves within the 200 mile of China’s EEZ. China had responded by sending fighter planes and naval vessels to intercept.Nasty accidents and incidents had happened.

    Before going further , take for instance,
    if China should operate its reconnaissance planes and naval vessels within the US 200 mile EEZ in the Caribbean Sea, the key question to ask in finding or formulate a peaceful and sustainable solution for SCS is ,
    How would USA react ?

  3. There won’t be any military conflict in the area. Chinese Navy dare not do anything to make USA mad. Don’t worry. China will come back mild. Those strong words were made for Chinese consumption.

  4. I do not see this as a USA v China issue, but much more an ASEAN v China issue and one that shows that the concept of ASEAN has failed miserably. It is the coastal zones of ASEAN member countries that is being claimed by China, not USA territory.

    Of course China would prefer to work one on one with each of the asian countries that they are in dispute with as China has the upper hand economically and militarily; so of course they will get their way. Only by combining as a block, (as in ASEAN) was there any possibility of there being a more equal debate with China. But China could always see that as a hurdle so bought off Cambodia and others to ensure that the Block approach was doomed.

    It is now far too late. China has been working on this for the past decade, firstly with naval fleet activities throughout the claimed area, recently close to coast on Malaysia, with complete freedom, and nary a word from ASEAN or the member states.

    This followed with the building of naval and air capable facilities throughout the claimed area for which China will never relinquish.

    China has won, without any repercussions.
    Soon, we will hear of ASEANXIT. The regional organisation as structured cannot get its act together. The Chinese are brilliant followers of Sun Tze’s Art of War. They got all their bases covered in Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America and South India and they cannot be dislodged from the South China Sea without triggering another bloody regional war with devastating consequences on our economies.–Din Merican

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